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`A bulwark against evil’

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Creating a world court to prosecute those who commit war crimes, crimes against humanity and acts of genocide is an idea with considerable merit.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan is to be commended for calling on the international community to establish "a bulwark against evil."The question of how to deal with international criminals has existed for many decades. It has been addressed in various ways since the post World War II Nuremberg and Tokyo war crimes trials. Atrocities in Rwanda and Bosnia have given new impetus to a global prosecutorial body.

The idea of a world court is not new but was put on a lengthy hold with the intervention of the Cold War. The past four years has been a time of renewed interest culminating with the current five-week U.N. conference in Rome designed to set up the tribunal. (Note: The current world court, a U.N. institution in The Hague, formally known as the International Court of Justice, deals with disputes between nations and does not target individuals).

General guidelines may be agreed to but as far as having a world court ready to function, that's a process that could take years because of ongoing debate over how much power the world body should have. Delegates from 180 nations are discussing what will set a prosecution in motion, how much authority a prosecutor should have and the influence of the U.N. Security Council on court proceedings. Despite these significant challenges and others, the concept needs to be pursued.

The world court should not supersede the authority of U.S. courts or those of other nations where a domestic legal system is functioning adequately. There seems to be a consensus that the world court should only take precedence when national courts cannot or will not prosecute individuals on serious charges such as genocide.

The world court needs to be able to prevent individuals from committing heinous crimes by making them accountable for their actions.

A proposal by Japan, France and others that the world court only act when it has the consent of the government involved would seriously, if not fatally, affect the court's ability to carry out its mandate. Nations such as Iraq are not going to give the world court permission to pursue unprincipled leaders such as Saddam Hussein. There has to be a mechanism allowing the court to go against the wishes of some nations if needed.

In the end there may be more peer pressure than prosecutorial power. But if that's enough to get the attention of the Pol Pots, Saddam Husseins and Slobodan Milosevics of the world, then the world court will have served a useful purpose.